Wednesday Rockpile: Colorado's Path to Success in 2013

USA TODAY Sports

If the projection systems at Fangraphs are to be believed, the Rockies have a better chance than you might think to get over .500 this year.

I looked back this past weekend on what I had written about this team during the off-season and found that there wasn't a lot of optimism in my prose. Now for a team that won 64 games last year, my prediction of 76 wins for 2013 would represent a pretty significant improvement. Still, it's a little depressing as a baseball fan to look at your favorite team's chances for the upcoming season (the longest season in terms of games played in professional sports, mind you) and see a team that would need a lot to go right to reach the 81 win mark.

Last week I was asked by the powers that be at SB Nation to write up a best case and worst case scenario for the Rockies in their NL West Preview. Here's what I wrote about Colorado's best case scenario:

While on a hunting trip deep in the Pacific Northwest this week, the Brothers Monfort encounter five attractive alabaster-skinned youths hurling baseballs at unheard of velocities and hitting mammoth home runs. They ask no questions, signing each for the major league minimum.

The Rockies' home field advantage is unmatched due to the noise generated by its suddenly robust teen-age-girl fan demographic and the team coasts to a World Series championship. Troy Tulowitzki's sterling health, Wilin Rosario's maturation as a catcher, and Todd Helton looking friskier than he has in years also plays a role.

The season is marred only by an incident in which an opposing player's untimely bloody nose ends in a bizarre bench-clearing brawl, where all five of the new stars have to be physically restrained from, as one fan overhears, "enjoying the sweet nectar of the vanquished enemy". Jonathan Herrera mysteriously disappears after a night out with his new teammates.

In other words, I didn't take the exercise very seriously. I shall attempt to do so now. A playoff berth is unrealistic for this year, but there's always a chance (according to Baseball Prospectus, a 5% chance) that the Rockies can be good enough this year (and the other teams are bad enough) that Colorado can sneak into the postseason. Honestly, a pretty good start to bridging the gap between 64 wins and a postseason run in 2013 for the Rockies would entail the position players simply living up to Fangraphs' projections for them this year.

The site been running a series ranking every team in MLB by positional group by WAR (weighted by projected plate appearances) based on two projection systems, ZiPS and Steamer, over the last week (here's the intro post explaining the method). To put it simply, by this method the Rockies look like an offensive juggernaut this year:

Position fWAR MLB Rank
C 3.9 11
1B 2.6 14
2B 3.5 7
3B 2.6 19
SS 6.3 1
LF 5.1 3
CF 4.4 5
RF 3.0 7
Total 31.4 8.4

In other words, the Rockies are projected to get above league average performance (2 fWAR represents league average in this system) from every single positional group this year.

To give you a reference, Rockies position players last year combined for just 17.9 fWAR - so that projection represents a 13.5 win improvement right off the bat (and projects to be about the best offense in MLB). If the offense is that potent, the pitching would just have to repeat last season's 12.1 fWAR output to give the Rockies 43.5 fWAR.

I believe that Fangraphs sets their replacement level at 43 wins - meaning that a team comprised wholly of AAAA minimum salary players would go 43-119 on the year. If you simply add the 43.5 wins above replacement to that replacement level, the Rockies end up with between 86 and 87 wins, well in contention for that playoff berth. And that 86 win projection is if the pitching is 2012 bad (or if my math is bad). I do believe that it doesn't take a whole lot of squinting to see 2013's pitching staff performing at a higher level than the 2012 edition.

Now I happen to believe that a few of the Fangraphs calculations for position players are a little more optimistic than even my rosy view, but it does represent a decent ceiling for the Rockies on offense provided that all the key players stay healthy.

Of course, Colorado produced a combined 30 fWAR last year and won only 64 games, a deficit of 9 from what they would be expected to win, so I wouldn't trust my math too much. Likely the pitching would need to improve significantly for the Rockies to get in the 86 win range even if the offense took a big step forward too.

Much of the discussion this offseason has centered around Colorado's pitching and defense, which is perfectly reasonable to do when the team was so abjectly horrible at both last year. Naturally, a regression upwards toward mediocrity in those areas (which will occur with even poor injury luck) will have a big influence on the team, but let's not forget that the talent on this team on offense is legitimately good and that the offense can improve significantly from last year too, particularly on the road.

The pitching side of the projections have yet to be released, but like I mentioned above, it's difficult to believe the Rockies will be worse than last year. Jorge De La Rosa, even an ineffective version, is better than Jamie Moyer. Drew Pomeranz and Juan Nicasio are interesting players who could be impact starters, Jeff Francis is looking frisky this spring, and Jhoulys Chacin still has front of rotation potential. There's pitching talent on this team - and they could certainly show it at the MLB level this year, particularly with an improved defense behind them.

Will it all work out that way this year? In about 5% of alternate universes it will!

Links

If only the Rockies had some pitchers that good throw high pressure innings at the championship level. What's that? Former Rockies farmhands Samuel Deduno and Pedro Strop did just that in last night's WBC championship game? Blerg.

Baseball Prospectus did their major league preview interview with Geoff Young (who I interviewed a couple of weeks ago) and MLB.com beat writer Thomas Harding. It's a good half hour discussion on the Rockies, hitting on a lot of interesting topics.

Speaking of Harding, he wrote about Nicasio's improved confidence with his change-up. We all know that La Violencia has a powerful fastball, but it's the development of the change that will make him an effective starter. In the article there's also notes on Nolan Arenado's bid for 3B, Jonathan Herrera's fight for a roster spot, and the backup catcher battle.

On that last point, Troy Renck writes that Yorvit Torrealba's positive influence on Wilin Rosario should make Torrealba the choice for the backup slot. I don't see the Rockies cutting Ramon Hernandez given his $3.2 million guaranteed salary, so unless a trade is worked out I see him staying and Yorvit going.

OFF-TOPIC.

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